Category Archives: Plants

At Last It Rained and …

After weeks of dry weather it finally rained in late October and ... wow!   Local wild food enthusiast and mushroom hunter, Adam Haritan, found a mother lode of giant puffball mushrooms in western Pennsylvania's woods.

Join in his enthusiasm and learn about these edible mushrooms in his Learn Your Land video above. Subscribe to his YouTube channel to get periodic updates on mushrooms and edible plants.

And this weekend you'll have an opportunity to learn from Adam Haritan in person when he presents "Late Autumn Foraging For Edible Wild Plants & Mushrooms" at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library on Sunday, November 5th, 2-4pm.  This free event is hosted by the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy.  ( Map and info here.)

 

(video at Learn Your Land on YouTube)

Sexing Spicebush

Spicebush fruit, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush fruit, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

How do you tell the sex of a spicebush?  In autumn the females have bright red fruit.

Flowering plants (angiosperms) have different ways of reproducing:

  • 90% of species have "perfect" flowers containing both male and female parts -- stamens and pistils.  "Perfect" flowers are bisexual or hermaphrodites.
  • Monoecious species have separate male and female flowers on the same plant.  Did you know that corn (maize) is monoecious?  The tassle on top is the male flower; the corncob grows from the female flower.
  • Dioecious species have male and female flowers on separate plants.  Only 6% of flowering plants are dioecious, mostly woody species.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is dioecious but I didn't know that when I encountered this explosion of spicebush berries in the Laurel Highlands.

Profusion of spicebush berries, Laurel Highlands, Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Profusion of spicebush berries, Laurel Highlands, Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Right next to the fruit-laden bush was another one with no fruit at all -- just tiny green knobs, the buds for next spring.  Why?

Aha!  This plant is male.

Spicebush without fruit, just buds, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush without fruit, just buds, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you know what to look for you can sex spicebush at any time of year but autumn is the easiest. In spring the spicebush flowers are so small that you'll want a magnifying glass to see their tiny structures.

For closeups of male and female spicebush flowers click here at the New Jersey Plant Society's webpage on Lindera benzoin.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Cranberry Harvest Time

My sister-in-law describes how the floating cranberries are gathered (photo by Kate St. John)
My sister-in-law describes how the floating cranberries are gathered (photo by Kate St. John)

October is cranberry harvest time in Massachusetts.  Last week at Cape Cod my sister-in-law took us to see a flooded cranberry bog, red with floating cranberries.

Cranberries are native perennial vines that grow in sandy soil.  Before mechanization people used to pick them by hand, crawling around on their hands and knees as shown in this painting of Nantucket in 1880.

Jonathan Eastman Johnson: The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket, 1880
Jonathan Eastman Johnson: The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket, 1880

Nowadays the harvest uses machines and this unique quality of the cranberry -- it floats.

In the photo at top, my sister-in-law describes how the bog is dry during the growing season.  In the spring, honeybees are brought in to pollinate the cranberry flowers.  Then in October when the berries are ripe, workers flood the bog and use a thresher machine to knock the berries off the underwater vines.  The berries float, the workers corral the berries, and machines lift the cranberries out of the bog.

My husband went back a few days later to see the rest of the process.  Here the cranberries are corralled and shuttled up out of the bog into the large black truck.

Cranberry harvest at Cape Cod: the berries are lifted into the truck on the left (photo by Rick St. John)
Cranberry harvest at Cape Cod: the berries are lifted into the truck on the left (photo by Rick St. John)

A man monitors the machinery as cranberries tumble into the truck (photo by Rick St. John)
A man monitors the machinery as cranberries tumble into the truck (photo by Rick St. John)

 

This 5 minute video shows the entire process.

 

The cranberry harvest is underway this month in these northern states and provinces: New Jersey, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Quebec.

 

(photos of a Cape Cod cranberry bog by Kate and Rick St. John. Painting of The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket, 1880 by Jonathan Eastman Johnson via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.  Video from True Food TV via YouTube)

Leaf Miner on Coltsfoot

Leaf miner on coltsfoot (photo by Kate St. John)
Leaf miner on coltsfoot (photo by Kate St. John)

Autumn is a good time to look for unusual leaves. They used to be boring until something happened to them.  Like this.

There's an elaborate squiggle on this coltsfoot leaf (Tussilago farfara) made by a leaf miner, an insect larva that makes a path as it eats within the leaf tissue.  Eventually the larva settles down to pupate and the path comes to an end.  When the adult insect hatches it leaves a hole.

What makes these lines?  I had no idea until I googled "leaf mine on coltsfoot"and found the answer.  A blogger at Nature Post collected similar coltsfoot leaves, put them in jars, and waited for the adult insects to appear.  It turns out his leaf mines were made by tiny moths called Phyllocnistis insignis.

See more leaf mines and a photo of the adult moth in his Nature Post from October 2013:  A Little Scientific Discovery.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

Chicken Of The Woods

Chicken-of-the-woods (photo by Chuck Tague)
Chicken-of-the-woods (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

This mushroom is easy to find right now.  It's edible(*) and it tastes like chicken so it's called Chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus).

I found a huge one years ago with a chicken-sized chunk taken out of it.  Apparently a mushroom hunter had been there ahead of me, as described in this 2010 article: Chicken of the Woods

 

But don't listen to me when it comes to mushrooms.  (I know nothing!)  Learn about Chicken-of-the-woods in this video by Adam Haritan of Learn Your Land.

 

 

(*) Note that an "edible mushroom" can sometimes be poisonous.  Be sure you know what you're doing!

(photo by Chuck Tague, video by Adam Haritan)

Fruits On Migration

Fruits of Devil's Walkingstick (photo by Vern Wilkins, Indiana University, Bugwood.org)
Fruits of Devil's Walkingstick (photo by Vern Wilkins, Indiana University, Bugwood.org)

Travel puts nutrition demands on birds in migration. What's on the menu for birds that eat fruit?  Here's what they've been eating lately in Pittsburgh's Schenley and Frick Parks.

Number One on the menu is devil's walkingstick (Aralia spinosa). The picture above shows a beautiful full fruit cluster but you can't find these anymore.  The tops of the plants are now empty pink stems with a few berries hanging on.  Here's one in Schenley Park, looking up from below.

Fruit has been mostly eaten from Devils Walking Stick, 25 Sept 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fruit has been mostly eaten from Devils Walking Stick, 25 Sept 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Another favorite are these tiny black cherries (Prunus serotina).  Many black cherry trees have already been stripped of their fruit by large flocks of American robins and cedar waxwings.

Black cherry fruits and leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Black cherry fruits and leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Invasive species are also on the menu.  Amur, bush and the other alien honeysuckles have showy red berries.

Amur honeysuckle fruits (photo by Kate St.John)
Amur honeysuckle fruits (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Porcelain berry, another invasive, is a favorite with cedar waxwings.

Porcelain berries (photo by Kate St. John)
Porcelain berries (photo by Kate St. John)

 

I don't know if these wild grapes are native or alien, but they sure look good for birds.

Wild grapes (photo by Kate St. John)
Wild grapes (photo by Kate St. John)

 

And here are two native species ...

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and ...

Ripe Pokeberries (photo by Kate St.John)
Ripe poke berries (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Spicebush (Lindera sp.) is especially nutritious and a real favorite of wood thrushes and veeries.  There's a lot of it along the Upper Trail at Schenley Park.

Spicebush berries (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush berries (photo by Kate St. John)

 

The plants have laid out a feast for the birds so their fruit will be eaten on migration.

 

(photo credits: Devil's walkingstick by Vern Wilkins, Indiana University via bugwood.org; Black cherries from Wikimedia Commons. All other photos by Kate St. John)

Leaves Turned White

Wingstem leaves turning white. Why? (photo by Kate St. John)
Wingstem leaves turning white. Why? (photo by Kate St. John)

In July and August I noticed something I'd never seen before along the trails of western Pennsylvania -- scattered instances of leaves turning white.

The leaves had been green but now their tips or even whole branches were white. The plant below had advanced to the stage where some of the stems were completely white.

Leaves in distress: top is white, 31 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Leaves in distress: top is white, 31 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

The condition is called chlorosis and it means the plant is not producing enough chlorophyll to look green.  Since chlorophyll uses sunlight to make food for the plant, it's a sign the plant is in distress.  But why?

Causes of chlorosis are wide-ranging.  Here's the list from Wikipedia, with my [notes] added:

  • a specific mineral deficiency in the soil, such as iron, magnesium or zinc
  • deficient nitrogen and/or proteins
  • a soil pH at which minerals become unavailable for absorption by the roots
  • poor drainage (waterlogged roots)  [Not likely in this case.]
  • damaged and/or compacted roots  [Not likely in this case.]
  • pesticides and particularly herbicides may cause chlorosis, both to target weeds and occasionally to the crop being treated.  [Not likely in this case due to location.]
  • exposure to sulphur dioxide [Possible in Pittsburgh but not likely in this case.]
  • ozone injury to sensitive plants [Not likely in this case.]
  • presence of any number of bacterial pathogens, for instance Pseudomonas syringae pv. tagetis that causes complete chlorosis on Asteraceae.

Interestingly, the plants I photographed are in the Aster Family (Asteraceae) and one of them has complete chlorosis.

Was the 2017 growing season especially bad for the bacteria mentioned above?  Or does chlorosis happen every year and I've just not noticed?

If you know more about this condition in the wild, please leave a comment.  I'm really curious!

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

 

Variety of Goldenrods

Goldenrod at Mount Dessert Island, Maine (photo by Kate St. John)
Goldenrod at Mount Dessert Island, Maine (photo by Kate St. John)

Any trip outdoors this month will find a lot of goldenrods in North America.  Here are just a few of the species I've photographed over the years.  All of them are different.

Can I tell you their names? No. Goldenrods are notoriously hard to identify.

Above, a beautiful bushy goldenrod at Acadia National Park in Maine.

Below, the classic goldenrod shape in Pittsburgh: a tall plant with narrow alternate leaves and a tassel of yellow flowers on top.  To identify it I'd need more information than the photo provides.  For instance:  Do the leaves have two or three prominent veins?  Are they toothed or entire?  Is the main stem smooth or downy or both?

Tall goldenrod with a tassel on top (photo by Kate St. John)
Tall goldenrod with a tassel on top (photo by Kate St. John)

 

In the photo below: An unusual goldenrod shape photographed in Pittsburgh. The plant reaches out horizontally with flowers perched in clusters on top of the stem. The leaves are long and narrow.  Perhaps it's blue-stemmed or wreath goldenrod.

Perhaps this is blue-stemmed or wreath goldenrod (photo by Kate St.John)
Perhaps this is blue-stemmed or wreath goldenrod (photo by Kate St.John)

 

This one is a stand-up spike of yellow flowers with egg-shaped alternate leaves, found in Pittsburgh.

A goldenrod at Cedar Creek in 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
A compact, upright goldenrod at Cedar Creek Park (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Is this goldenrod the same species as the tall tassel above?  I don't know.

A tall and bushy goldenrod, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
A tall and bushy goldenrod, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

 

I've never seen white goldenrods in Pittsburgh. This spike of white flowers was photographed at Acadia National Park in Maine.

White goldenrod in Maine (photo by Kate St.John)
White goldenrod in Maine (photo by Kate St.John)

 

And finally, a ball-shaped flower cluster with long leaves, growing in a granite crack at Acadia National Park.

Goldenrod in a rock, Acdia National Park, Maine (photo by Kate St. John)
Goldenrod in a rock, Acdia National Park, Maine (photo by Kate St. John)

So much variety.  So many goldenrods.  And often so hard to identify.

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

Leaves in Distress

Leaves in distress: defoliant (photo by Kate St.John)
Leaves in distress: defoliant (photo by Kate St.John)

Early in June I noticed curled leaves on all the trees and bushes by a road in my neighborhood.  Though I suspected it was caused by herbicide I was puzzled that other plants were not brown and dead.  Why would someone use an herbicide that maimed but didn't kill?  I forgot about it until I saw a photo of soybeans that looked the same way.

This summer, farmers from Arkansas to Ohio and North Dakota have experienced crop loss from a new formulation of the herbicide dicamba.  Dicamba has been used for a long time but this spring Monsanto, BASF and DuPont reformulated it for use with new genetically engineered dicamba-resistant soybeans.

The problem is this:  If your neighbor plants the new soybeans your fields could be affected.   The new dicamba volatilizes (evaporates) from the soil and leaves where it's applied and drifts as much as half a mile causing crop loss and low yield in everything else including non-resistant soybeans, tomatoes, watermelons, grapes, pumpkins and other vegetables.

At first affected farmers were reluctant to report a problem caused by their neighbors but crop losses have been so severe -- up to 80% -- that Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee placed restrictions on dicamba use this summer and many have asked EPA to reconsider its approval.

I'll never know if dicamba was used in my neighborhood but I know now that an herbicide can do this.

Leaves in distress in my neighborhood (photo by Kate St. John)
Leaves in distress in my neighborhood (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile the leaves are still in distress.  I took these photos last week.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Velvet Red

Cardinal flower (photo by Kate St. John)
Cardinal flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is such a deep red color that it looks like velvet.

From a distance you'll see this perennial along streambanks, in wet places and swamps. The plant is as much as four feet tall.

It blooms in late summer and early fall, just in time for migrating hummingbirds to sip its nectar on their way south.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)